In the 1850s it was apparent that tourism was to be an important part of the future of the southeast coast of France (not yet the Côte d’Azur), and the tiny Principality of Monaco wanted to be part of it. Casinos and thermal cures were proving popular and profitable in other parts of Europe, and the Monaco authorities felt that they had potential for them too, especially as gaming was banned in nearby France. The first gaming concession was granted in 1856, along with others for a sea-bathing establishment, hotels, villas, steamship and bus services to Nice, a newspaper, a port warehouse, and the Monaco section of the Nice/Genoa railway. Gaming started at the modest Maison Bellevue, ancestor of the present casino.
Unfortunately, the original concessionaires, Léon Langlois and Albert Aubert, proved incapable. The concessions were sold to one Pierre Daval in 1858, then to François Lefèbvre in 1859. They proved no better, but Daval did organise the building of the first casino. The rock now known as Monte Carlo (after Prince Charles III) was at the time a barren area of scrub, named the Plateau des Spélugues and grazed by goats. The building of the original casino took until 1863. In that year it was apparent that the new casino had to be exploited by someone more capable, and the choice fell on François Blanc, a Bordeaux stockbroker who for 20 years had been running the casino at Homburg, north of Frankfurt, with conspicuous success.
1899 one-fifth bearer share, with a design showing all of Monaco’s attractions – the city, the harbour, the palace, semi- tropical fruits and two classical maidens holding images of,
The innocuously-named Société des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Etrangers de Monaco, or ‘SBM’ – translating as the ‘sea bathing company and foreigners’ club’- was formed by Blanc in 1863, as a result of a new concession granted by the Prince of Monaco in April of that year. The concession was for 50 years, to be extended as needed. The statutes of the new company were ambitious. As with casinos elsewhere, the aim was to give visitors a comfortable and luxurious stay, and the company was to provide high-quality hotels and restaurants, gardens, pavilions, and shady groves in which to relax. Balls and concerts were to be organised. The casino would offer whist, écarté, piquet, pharaon, boston, reversi, roulette (with one or two zeros) and ‘trente et quarante’.
Blanc set the highest standards for all the SBM activities, and the big gamblers and the wealthy of Europe started to flock to Monte Carlo. In its first year, 1864, the casino made a profit of F500,000.
The defeat of France by Prussia in 1870 threatened Monaco, and hurt the casino business greatly, but Blanc turned it to advantage by offering a contribution to the indemnity that France had to pay, thus making gaming seem respectable. Business picked up quickly after the war, and the casino began to attract European royalty. Blanc died in 1877, but his young, rich and influential wife assisted their son Camille to take over his father’s position, until her own death in 1881. By this time Monte Carlo was the only place in the whole of Europe where gaming was legal. A loan of F4.5 millions by SBM to the city of Paris, to enable it to complete the Paris Opéra, gained valuable friends in high places. The designer of the Opéra, Charles Garnier, was engaged to build a large and luxurious new casino, on the site of the existing one, and the main part of the present casino was built in 1878-79.
The SBM and the casino survived World War I, and flourished until the end of the 1920s. In the early 1920s, control was acquired by the then famous but ruthless arms magnate and financier Sir Basil Zaharoff. After the death of his wife, he lost interest in the casino, and sold his controlling interest to the Paris banking house of Daniel Dreyfus. The annual profit in the mid- and late-1920s far exceeded the nominal capital of the company, and enormous dividends were paid; in those years the annual dividend per share was F725, 45% above the nominal value of that share. The value of the shares on the Paris bourse rose in 1926 to F20,000.
By 1883 the company had repaid half its shares out of profits, and the remaining original shares were cancelled and replaced by new shares on the basis of two new for one old, thus restoring the original capital. Of the 60,000 shares, 52,000 were owned by the Blanc family. The original shares have not been seen, but the new shares, dated 1884, are known to collectors, although they are very rare. In 1899 the market value of one share was over F5,000, and the issue of certificates for 1/5 share was authorised. The high level of profits made it unnecessary for SBM to increase its capital until 1915, to F36m, followed by increases to F38m in 1919 and to F52m in 1929.
In the early 1930s, the world depression decimated the takings, and the company (and Principality) treasury was empty. Moreover, the casinos along the nearby French Riviera were now offering strong competition. In 1936 the company revealed a loss, and no dividend was paid; the shares plummeted. The gas, water, electricity, roads, fire and postal services had to be taken over by the government. For various reasons, World War II restored the profitability of Monaco, and laid the basis for the wealth of both the casino and the government today. However, the years after the war saw the casino making losses and unable to compete with the Riviera casinos.
By 1954, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who had long seen the potential of Monte Carlo (and had been quietly buying SBM shares) gained control (520,000 shares of the 1 million issued), and this revived confidence in SBM and the Principality. This was further boosted by the marriage of Prince Rainier to Grace Kelly in 1956. 1966 saw a controversial move by the Monaco government (always at odds with Onassis), authorising an increase in the capital of SBM and the issue of new shares to the government, thus depriving Onassis of his majority. In 1967 the Principality acquired the Onassis holding (at an enormous profit for the Greek shipowner) and thus control of SBM, and remains in control today.
Scripophily of the SBM
1863 * Action F500, capital F30m, issue 60,000
1884 Action F500, capital F30m, issue 60,000, black/buff 1899 1/5 Action F500, capital F30m, blue
1915 1/5 Action F500, capital F36m, blue/green/orange 1919 * 1/5 Action F500, capital F38m, issue 20,000
1929 Action F500, capital F52m
1929 * 1/5 Action F500, capital F52m
1942 Action F500, capital F80m, black/yellow
1942 1/5 Action F500, capital F80m, blue
1946-53 † Actions F500, capital F500m, black/blue
1966-83 † Actions F500, capital F9m, black/blue
1898 Obligation F300, issue 80,000, green/beige/grey * Obligation F300, issue 53,300
* 1905 Obligation F300, issue 33,333
1910 Obligation £10, issue 54,500, brown/orange
1935 1/5 Obligation £10, issue 2,000, violet/beige
* not seen on the collectors’ market
† The last two types of share are nominative (registered) shares, and all the other papers are bearer.
It is possible that from 1946 bearer shares with the F500m capital were also available, and that after the introduction in 1960 of the new franc (= 100 old), nominative shares showing capital F5m were issued, but none of these has been seen.